Despite privacy concerns raised by the South Dakota chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, the Pentagon has opted to launch solar-powered balloons across six states on Friday. The Pentagon plans to use these balloons as a persistent monitoring system to track narcotics and Homeland Security concerns. According to a filing with the Federal Communications Commission, this is the case. On July 12th, the Federal Communications Commission approved the deployment of these balloons into high altitude. This is a special temporary authorisation that is being used as an experiment.

In the states of Iowa, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Illinois, and Missouri, about two dozen balloons will be carrying radars that can track vehicles over a 25-square-mile area beneath them. They will be visible in the sky from July 12th until September 1st. They can travel up to 250 miles from their launch site and reach a maximum altitude of 65,000 feet above land. It’s unclear whether this is merely a test or a real-time probe. What information will be captured, what will happen to the information gathered during the event, and who will have custody of the information after the event are all uncertain.

The South Dakota chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union is afraid that these surveillance balloons may infringe on people’s privacy. They demanded that the military be forthcoming about its plans in South Dakota. Their worry stems from the fact that this technology is capable of keeping data on public movements across entire cities. This is a form of widespread surveillance.

The ACLU of South Dakota’s policy director, Libby Skarin, has some concerns.

“There are so many unanswered questions here. What kind of information is being collected? What information is being stored? Who has access to this information? Is the surveillance for law enforcement purposes? At a minimum, there should be consultation and approval from local communities before the federal government subjects South Dakotans to area-wide surveillance.”

This technology was originally created to locate improvised explosive devices on battlefields in Iraq and Afghanistan. One has to wonder what legal civilian application it has. The Supreme Court has already decided in favor of privacy when cutting-edge technologies have been exploited to violate Americans’ privacy. The most recent case came in 2018, when the court found that accessing historical records in a cell phone without a search warrant was a violation of the 4th amendment. There is a difference between being observed by law enforcement and being observed by technology, according to the court at the time.